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Book Review: The City of Time and Memory Part I by J. A. Childress (Series, #1)

June 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Black and white image of a giant clock with a red person jumping from it.Summary:
Zak wakes up from a night of drunken revelry to find himself in his apartment but not his apartment building.  His apartment is now part of a massive structure of multiple different architectural styles that looks like it goes on forever. Plus his bathroom is missing.  Shreya wakes up in her car in a parking garage to Hungry Eyes playing on the radio and an ominous car nearby nicknamed “Die Pflaume.”

Review:
This first entry of a new serial does a quick job establishing a strong setting but just when the action gets going, it leaves the reader hanging.

When I accepted this review copy, I must admit that I didn’t realize it was the first entry in a serial, I thought it was in a series.  Serials offer small episodes of an overarching story in bite-size chunks the reader picks up.  Think of it as reading an episode of your favorite tv series.  I think it would help if this was marketed more clearly as a serial, since certain readers love that reading experience and others aren’t too keen on it.  Making it clearer that it’s a serial will help it better reach the right readers.

A good serial entry will read much like an episode in a tv show with a large, overarching plot, but also a smaller plot that can be told in one episode that is, ideally, tied to the overarching plot in some way.  This gives the reader the satisfaction of completing a piece of smaller plot but also keeps them engaged in the series as a whole.  This serial does a good job setting up the overarching plot.  People are waking up in what appears to be an alternate universe that is possibly punishing them for something they did that they can’t remember with sinister beings chasing them or tormenting them from afar.  It’s a good mystery, but it is just getting going when the serial entry stops.  This would be ok, but the big weakness of the serial entry is that there is no self-contained smaller plot.  Thus, instead of feeling any sense of satisfaction of having learned something or completed one mystery, the two main mysteries of the overarching plot are just getting going and then stop abruptly.  Without the presence of a second, self-contained, smaller plot for this entry in the serial, this just leaves the reader feeling cheated out of getting the whole story, rather than the dual experience of satisfaction at the wrap-up of the smaller plot and intrigue at the larger plot.

The setting of the alternate universe is well-established and delightfully creepy.  Everything being just a little bit off is creatively written without being in the reader’s face.  The author also includes a drawing of a mysterious symbol that Zak sees, which helps build the atmosphere.

In contrast, Zak and Shreya feel a bit two-dimensional, but this is possibly because they have such a short time in which to be established.  Similarly, the demonic character who chases Zak comes across as corny, straight out of a B movie, not frightening like he is, presumably, supposed to.  The world building is so good that the two-dimensional good guys and cheesy bad guys stick out like a sore thumb.

The one flaw in the writing style is there are way too many similes.  At times it feels that every other sentence contains one.  Any descriptor used too much can go from artful to annoying.  A lighter hand on these would be helpful in future entries.

Overall, this first entry in the serial establishes a delightfully creepy alternate universe where everything is just off.  The lack of a smaller, self-contained plot in addition to an overarching plot will make this frustrating to read, unless the reader has the next entry at hand to read immediately.  Recommended primarily to horror fans who like their horror in small bites and enjoy the concept of a serial who won’t mind waiting a bit for the conclusion to the mystery in future entries.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Dagon by Fred Chappell (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Green-tinted handcuffs and a keyhole that reveal the face of a lizard.Summary:
Peter doesn’t know much about his father’s side of the family as his mother left him when he was little.  Now, a married pastor, he returns to his father’s parents’ house, a recent inheritance.  Slowly he discovers the cultist history of his family and begins his descent into madness.

Review:
There aren’t that many books in the Lovecraft mythos, so when I spot one, I almost always add it to my wishlist and pick it up if I spot it.  (I’m a big fan of the mythos, and my current work in progress is set in it).  I spotted this one during one of Better World Books’ periodic sales and got it for just a couple of dollars.  The problem with the world of Lovecraftian horror is this.  The mythos is great, but a lot of the books/movies set in it are a swing and a miss.  Which is sad for me as a reader, because I know that this is an author with the same funky interest as me, so I want it to work. I want it to work very much.  It just doesn’t always.  This, unfortunately, falls solidly in the swing and a miss category for me.

The germ of the story is a great idea.  An ostensibly mainstream “good” man following his roots and falling into a dark god worshiping cult. Brilliant.  The execution is weak, however.  The cover of my copy of the book claims that it is a “novel of blinding terror.”  This is just not the case.  In some ways I feel that Chappell just tried too hard.  The entire first chapter is meant to set the scene with extremely heavy-handed gothic language, but it is just painful to read.  The first chapter describes one room of the house.  Excessive energy is spent trying to make even the throw pillows seem malicious.  It is too over-the-top and becomes laughable.  Thankfully, the next chapter abandons the excessive language, but it is still never scary.  It is titillating at a couple of points.  Engaging as well.  But never terrifying.

Part of the problem is that the book fails to build suspense from beginning to end.  It builds up in part one to a singular event, but then immediately crashes back down to a period in part two in which Peter lies around in a depressed funk.  While this might be realistic, it does nothing to build the suspense.  The suspense thus must start all over again.  This may be acceptable in a long work (and even then I’m dubious), but in such a short book it’s just jarring and ruins the suspense.

I also found the ultimate payoff to be a bit disappointing.  While we find out one or two things about Peter’s family, we don’t get enough details to truly experience shock or horror.  Similarly, the ultimate final descent of Peter was a bit disappointing.  He doesn’t engage in any agency or become a committed cultist.  A lot of cult things are done to him, but he doesn’t really have the descent into madness promised.  He is tortured and made into a slave and has the mental and emotional breakdown such experiences could make someone experience, but he himself doesn’t turn into a raving Dagonite, for instance.

That said, there are some things that worked in the book.  As stated previously, the germ of the idea is great.  Peter’s nemesis/mentor, the tenant farmer family’s daughter, is delightfully powerful and sinister.  A couple of scenes were a great mix of titillation and horror, and the final climax was definitely a surprise.

Overall, then, it’s a book that tries to be a terrifying, gothic horror, but instead is a titillating grotesque bit of southern literature.  Fans of the Lovecraftian mythos will appreciate it for this, although the Lovecraftian elements themselves are sparse and a bit disappointing.  Recommended for big fans of grotesque, fantastical horror who don’t mind it leaning a bit more toward the grotesque than the scary side of horror.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Series, #1)

December 21, 2012 2 comments

Woman with hair made of bird silhouettes.Summary:
Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though.  And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter.  You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone.  But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.

Review:
This is one of those books that is very difficult to categorize.  I want to call it urban fantasy, but it doesn’t have much supernatural about it, except for the ability to see deaths.  The world isn’t swimming in vampires or werewolves of goblins.  I also want to call it a thriller what with the whole try to stop the trucker from dying bit but it’s so much more than chills and whodunit (or in this case, who will do it).  Its dark, gritty style reminds me of Palahniuk, so I suppose what might come the closest would be a Palahniuk-esque urban fantasy lite thriller.  What I think sums it up best, though, is a quote from Miriam herself:

It starts with my mother….Boys get fucked up by their fathers, right? That’s why so many tales are really Daddy Issue stories at their core, because men run the world, and men get to tell their stories first. If women told most of the stories, though, then all the best stories would be about Mommy Problems. (location 1656)

So, yes, it is all of those things, but it’s also a Mommy Problems story, and that is just a really nice change of pace.  Mommy Problems wrapped in violence and questioning of fate.

The tone of the entire book is spot on for the type of story it’s telling. Dark and raw with a definite dead-pan, tongue-in-cheek style sense of humor.  For instance, each chapter has an actual title, and these give you a hint of what is to come within that chapter, yet you will still somehow manage to be surprised.  The story is broken up by an interview with Miriam at some other point in time, and how this comes into play with the rest of the storyline is incredibly well-handled.  It’s some of the best story structuring I’ve seen in a while, and it’s also a breath of fresh air.

Miriam is also delightful because she is unapologetically ribald and violent.  This is so rare to find in heroines.

We’re not talking zombie sex; he didn’t come lurching out of the grave dirt to fill my living body with his undead baby batter. (location 2195)

As a female reader who loves this style, it was just delightful to read something featuring a character of this style who is also a woman.  It’s hard to find them, and I like that Wendig went there.

While I enjoyed the plot structure, tone, and characters, the extreme focus on fate was a bit iffy to me.  There were passages discussing fate that just fell flat for me.  I’m also not sure of how I feel about the resolution.  However, I’m also well aware that this is the beginning of a series, so perhaps it’s just that the overarching world rules are still a bit too unclear for me to really appreciate precisely what it is that Miriam is dealing with.  This is definitely the first book in the series in that while some plot lines are resolved, the main one is not.  If I’d had the second book to jump right into I would have.  I certainly hope that the series ultimately addresses the fate question in a satisfactory way, but at this point it is still unclear if it will.

Overall, this is a dark, gritty tale that literally takes urban fantasy on a hitchhiking trip down the American highway.  Readers who enjoy a ribald sense of humor and violence will quickly latch on to this new series.  Particularly recommended to readers looking for strong, realistic female leads.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Movie Review: Thor 3D (2011)

May 11, 2011 3 comments

Super sexy man faceSummary:
Thor, the son of Odin of Asgard, is more than ready to take the throne, but his father, not to mention his younger brother Loki, believes he’s too arrogant.  Thor gets banished to earth and finds himself at the mercy of a young astrophysicist studying what appear to be wormholes.

Review:
Thor had a huge opening weekend and with good reason.  The classic mythology mixed with science is an interesting change from the machine suits of Iron Man and the web spinning of Spiderman, yet it still allows for awe-inducing action sequences that put the 3D technology to good use.

The storyline isn’t incredibly complex, but it is unpredictable enough to remain entertaining.  The movie definitely ends with enough strings left hanging to easily make a sequel, as indeed Hollywood is probably planning on doing.  Although strings left untied usually annoy me in movies, they simply don’t bother me in the Marvel movies.  These are huge series they’re adapting, and it honestly makes me happy to think that I’ll have more and more Thor movies to go see.

The acting was quite good, if we ignore the hideous fake British accents all gods in Hollywood movies seem to be forced to use.  What is with that?  Is it supposed to make us think they’re older or something?  It was kind of giggle-inducing, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  In any case, the acting was very good with a fairly decent cast including Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins.  Chris Hemsworth certainly did his part in beefing up for the role of a hunky Norse god.  Ladies and gay gentlemen, you will not be disappointed in getting to watch him run around the screen for a couple of hours.

The special effects were very good.  Things fly at the screen, but the director doesn’t go out of the way to make that happen.  The storm clouds look amazing, as do the Ice Giants.  Frankly, I could find nothing wrong with the special effects.

Overall, although Thor is a bit kitschy, it’s still a highly enjoyable start to the summer action blockbusters.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action flick with a side of kitsch.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Movie theater

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